“There are so many parallels to classic superhero tropes” Writer Tom Ward on why Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman made a perfect choice for a comic book

Merrick_issue_3_page1What if the infamous Victorian sideshow attraction Joseph Merrick was actually a superhero who hid his powers in plain sight? This is the brilliant premise that writer Tom Ward and artist Luke Parker have built their series Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman around. One of the most original and exciting digital comics around, (it made our Best of ComiXology Submit 2014) issue #3 of Merrick is about to hit the digital stores so we caught up with creator Tom to find out more about the mystery of the sensational Elephantman.

""What if the disabilities displayed to the world as the Elephantman were actually part of a secret identity? What if his condition actually gave him the impervious skin of an elephant and enhanced strength, and he presented these disabilities to prevent his actions being traced back to him.""

“”What if the disabilities displayed to the world as the Elephantman were actually part of a secret identity? What if his condition actually gave him the impervious skin of an elephant and enhanced strength, and he presented these disabilities to prevent his actions being traced back to him.””

Tell us a bit about the inspiration for Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman? What made you chose this iconic Victorian character as your subject?

Tom Ward: The original idea struck me that there was Spiderman, Batman, Antman, Hawkman, Animalman etc. And then there was this real guy called the Elephantman but no one had touched on it before. Was his skin really as thick as an elephant’s? Then I started reading up on Joseph Merrick and his story was fascinating; the more I read, the more interesting stuff I came across. The setting and characters were perfect for a comic if you overlooked a few key points such as his lameness from a hip injury and his difficulty communicating. Joseph would go out in public wearing a mask to hide his identity, just like the classic super heroes, that got me to thinking what if the disabilities displayed to the world as the Elephantman were actually part of a secret identity? That he was hiding in plain sight? What if his condition actually gave him the impervious skin of an elephant and enhanced strength, and he presented these disabilities to prevent his actions being traced back to him. I then learned that on 3 occasions Merrick left the London hospital to go on holiday and was taken by a private train, what if these weren’t holidays? What if they were adventures?

When I was reading up on Frederick Treves I discovered he was best friends with Thomas Hardy, an English writer who had a fascination with the the supernatural and was a member of the same gentleman’s club as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a believer in spiritualism and a Freemason. So what if these 3 men were part of a secret society dabbling in the occult who could make use of a man with Merrick’s extraordinary abilities? And then it struck me as strange that Treves referred to Merrick as ‘John’ rather than ‘Joseph’ when writing about him, he must have known it was wrong? Or was he lying about Merrick’s real name for some reason? Why would he do that?

That’s really when the whole thing came together, I figured that would be something I’d want to read myself.

Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman #2

“Although he wasn’t born at the fair [as happens in issue #2] it was suggested that the concept of “maternal impression” was the cause of Merrick’s condition.”

How faithful are you with the historical accuracy of Merrick and how much creative licence have you taken with the characters and scenarios?

TW: Merrick is actually pretty historically accurate, there’s been a lot of research put into this book both from myself on the story/script side of things but also from Luke who gets a lot of researched reference pictures together before he works on a page.

I think pretty much all the characters in issue #1 are actual people and the events played out pretty much the way they do in the comic, there are even a lot of actual quotes from people in that issue. Obviously once we start getting into the revenge storyline we’re firmly in the realms of fiction but the Penny Gaff was closed down by the police and a temporary manager after Tom Norman did steal Merrick’s life savings and abandon him in Belgium while attempting to tour Europe.

Although he wasn’t born at the fair like happens in issue #2 it was suggested that the concept of “maternal impression” was the cause of Merrick’s condition, that the emotional experiences of a pregnant woman could have lasting effects on their unborn child. In this case an incident in which his pregnant mother was frightened by an elephant.

It has an almost super heroic quality to the book with some of the scenes, have you deliberately tried to emphasise certain parts of the story to create that feel for the book?

TW: Yeah exactly. There are so many parallels to classic superhero tropes when you read about Merrick’s actual life; the name, the fact he wore a mask, the showmen presenting the idea that he was half man half elephant. Even the idea of “maternal impression” that we just touched upon sounds like something out of Stan Lee’s play-book for superhero origins. Combine this with the time period being that of the penny dreadful, the precursor to the pulps and modern comic books all those elements just really tied together to create our comic.

The look reminds me of Mike Mignola mixed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, did you have any common inspirations when you started working on Merrick? Did you use the David Lynch film for reference at all?

TW: I hadn’t actually seen the David Lynch film although I’m a fan of his work, Twin Peaks is possibly my favourite TV show. Obviously I knew it existed but since the idea for the comic first formed in my mind I made a conscious decision not to watch it until after I had finished writing the first story arc. I think I finally watched it the first week after I finished writing Merrick #4, it’s a great film and it’s interesting to see the differences. Bytes, the Showman of the movie is very much the “bad guy” of the piece whereas other accounts show that Merrick considered Tom Norman to be more of a friend who treated him and the rest of the acts fairly and is supported by the fact that Merrick had savings to be stolen in Belgium.

"There are so many parallels to classic superhero tropes when you read about Merrick’s actual life; the name, the fact he wore a mask..."

“There are so many parallels to classic superhero tropes when you read about Merrick’s actual life; the name, the fact he wore a mask…”

Myself and Luke are both fans of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Luke is a huge Mignola fan. A comic we both mentioned when first talking about Merrick was ‘Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #54 – Sanctum’, a kind of Batman Lovecraft story. I’d picked it up years and years ago in a trade paperback collection from a discount bookshop. I think it must have really stuck with me in the back of my head, once Luke brought it up I remembered all about it and dug it up again.

Tell us about the team who put together Merrick, how did you meet and what are your backgrounds in comics?

TW: Well personally this is my first comic, really the first thing I’ve written, I’ve been a lifelong fan and making a comic was really just the natural progression for me. I had the concept, sat down and wrote the first 4 scripts and then it was time to hit the internet and find a team which is not an easy task. I had another artist lined up originally but they were offered some video game concept design work they couldn’t turn down so that sent me back to step one which was initially demoralising.

I saw Luke’s work over at zwol.org forums and sent him a message about the project. Since Merrick he did an issue of SEX (#18) with Joe Casey for Image Comics and a story in the horror anthology ‘In The Dark’ for IDW. It’s great that he’s getting more work, Merrick was the first full issue he’s completed so hopefully it may have helped with that.

Luke already knew our letter Nic Shaw who’s a pretty prolific letterer and who recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign himself for his Sci-Fi book Action Johnson. Luckily my girlfriend Clare is a professional editor, not for comics but government websites, she came on board to help out and make sure that all the i’s had been dotted and the t’s crossed.

You’ve used Kickstarter to help fund it, how successful was your campaign and will you be using crowd sourcing again in the future?

TW: We raised just over £5,000 on our Kickstarter for the first 4 issues of Merrick, just slightly above our goal of £4,500. That doesn’t quite cover all of the costs but it is a huge chunk. Obviously we’ve been selling books and going to cons since then and hopefully we’ll at least have broken even by the end of this year once all 4 issues are released. The campaign itself was nerve wrecking but at the same time super exciting, for most of the time it was live we were the top UK comic Kickstarter in Europe which was incredibly encouraging. I think Kickstarter is great, I like browsing and backing stuff myself when I get the time and I’m definitely looking forward to getting another campaign going.

"I really just want as many people as possible to check our book out and hopefully enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it and a digital release makes that so much easier."

“I really just want as many people as possible to check our book out and hopefully enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it and a digital release makes that so much easier.”

You’ve released Merrick digitally on ComiXology, how much has that helped you reach a new audience for Merrick? And what have been the benefits compared to just releasing it in print?

TW: Comixology included Merrick #1 in a special pack they put together for San Diego Comiccon 2014, “100 indie comics for $10” which as you can imagine got picked up by A LOT of people, I think it ended up over 1700 people picked up that offer. I don’t know how many of them have got round to checking the comic out yet but I still think that’s pretty cool.

Something I felt passionately about our print copies was keeping them high quality and low numbered print runs, kinda like a limited edition prestige series. Merrick has been printed on 120GSM uncoated bond with 300GSM matt laminated covers and so has a really nice distinctive feel to it. However printing that kind of book doesn’t come cheap and we’re selling it as cheap as we can, the books are printed in the UK and already the pound to dollar exchange rate makes it an expensive book for the U.S. even before taking postage into consideration. A digital release allows us to overcome some of those boundaries because obviously there’s a huge number of comic fans, in America, far more than here in the UK and it gives us an opportunity to reach those guys and obviously elsewhere in the world. I really just want as many people as possible to check our book out and hopefully enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it and a digital release makes that so much easier.

You’ve funded 4 issues via Kickstarter, so what’s next for you and the team? More Merrick? Or are you working on other titles as well?

TW: I’m actually currently working on finishing a script for a one-shot that centres on Treves travelling through India before he met Merrick. Hopefully we’re going to be able to take that to Kickstarter after Merrick #4 is released. It’s probably going to be more pages than a regular issue and be something that fans of the Merrick series will be able to enjoy, it will flesh the world out further but also be something that can be enjoyed as a standalone story for people who haven’t. I’m also working on the next Merrick arc and constantly fleshing out the main big overarc but would love to get another project I have in mind started this year too.

As well as that I’m currently working on a script for a graphic novel with Chris Welsh who writes a cosmic horror comic called Wart. It’s pretty top secret right now but something different to both our normal things or what people might expect from us. There’s going to be a lot of drama, some romance and hopefully a couple of laughs along the way.

Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman #1-3 are available from ComiXology for £0.69/£1.49 per issue or from their Sellfy store store here. For more information visit their website www.merrickcomic.co.uk, like them on Facebook or follow them on twitter @merrickcomic

Author: Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas is the Editor and founder of PIpedream Comics. He grew up reading comics in the 90s, so even though he loves all things indie and small press, he is easily distracted by a hologram cover.